THE BLOG

American Workers Need Stable Housing Free From Discrimination

02/19/2015 11:48 am ET | Updated Apr 21, 2015

We recently celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a tireless champion of the fundamental human dignity of every man, woman and child, and a dear friend of the labor movement. It is in his memory and out of respect for the solidarity between Dr. King and the labor leaders of his time that we carry on the fight for fairness wherever it may take us.

That fight includes the right to affordable and fair housing without discrimination. The Supreme Court will soon decide one of the most important civil rights cases of our time, a case with the potential to put justice out of reach for working Americans. Currently, victims of housing discrimination may bring a complaint when there is clear evidence that a housing provider intended to discriminate, or when a practice or policy that is not intentionally discriminatory has a negative impact on a particular group of people, like female heads of households or persons with disabilities. This second approach is based on the disparate-impact protections of the Fair Housing Act and it is precisely what is at stake in this Supreme Court case.

The foreclosure crisis and the recession have been devastating, and we still need this approach to achieve a housing market that provides an equal opportunity to every working- and middle-class family. Wages have remained stagnant for decades, and today, too many middle-class families are locked out of buying a house or renting affordable housing. The ability of working families to purchase a home remains restricted, and half of all renters are spending more than a third of their income on housing. Life is even more challenging for families living on minimum wage, who must work 67 hours a week just to afford a two-bedroom apartment.

One may wonder why this issue is important to labor. The labor movement has long stood at the forefront of the most important fights for civil and human rights. From the days when then-AFL-CIO Vice President A. Philip Randolph chaired the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. King made his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, to the fight for voting and fair housing rights for all, labor has been there every step of the way. The support has been mutual.

In April 1968, Dr. King traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to support members of AFSCME Local 1733 in their strike. Dr. King and black sanitation workers marched strong and held signs that read "I AM A MAN" in their struggle to have a voice at work and in their segregated communities. Labor is ever grateful for Dr. King's support. But on April 4, 1968, Dr. King was shot in cold blood while in Memphis supporting the sanitation workers' strike. Seven days later, Congress, with the help of President Lyndon B. Johnson, passed the Fair Housing Act to help realize Dr. King's dream, prohibiting housing discrimination and providing the legal tools to give all Americans the right to live in whichever neighborhood they choose. The Fair Housing Act endures as Dr. King's last legislative achievement. But a misguided ruling by the Supreme Court could put it in danger.

Nearly 50 years after the Fair Housing Act was passed, many families continue to grapple with discriminatory housing policies that keep them from achieving their dreams. Families with children are often forced to pay more for an apartment if a rental company has a one-child-per-bedroom policy. Working families with children are denied mortgages when banks require women on maternity leave to return to work before they will make a loan, even when the family can well afford the loan. These and other examples of discriminatory policies destabilize entire families, result in unnecessary and unaffordable expenses, make home ownership more difficult to achieve, make it harder for families to build wealth, and make it harder to go to work. Disparate-impact protections under the Fair Housing Act were designed to right these wrongs.

This year, we face a battle to keep alive one of the most important and hard-fought victories of the civil rights era, which has helped so many working families buy a house and attain middle-class status. The labor and civil rights movements worked hard to eliminate systems that perpetuate discrimination and segregation, and it is with this tradition in mind that the labor movement calls on the Supreme Court to uphold the disparate-impact protections of the Fair Housing Act to ensure fair treatment for every working American.